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Interview Review

Unveiling Afghanistan: In Conversation with Nazes Afroz

 Cry, My Beloved Country (1948) reflected the plight of Africans and the deep divides that created schisms between different groups in South Africa. The book won the author, Alan Paton, a Nobel prize. Another remarkable book that was published in the same year was a non-fiction written by a student of Tagore called Syed Mujtaba Ali. Mujtaba Ali wrote Deshe Bideshe in Bengali. This has been translated in recent times by the former BBC editor, Nazes Afroz as In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan. It is an outstanding memoir that demystifies and explains what led to the issues that are being faced by a country repeatedly jostled by varied regimes, a country that seems to be so steeped in problems that worrying about the pandemic remains a far cry for the common inhabitants.

For many decades this book had been feted by only a small group of readers, though the book is no lesser than Paton’s in crying out against injustices, terrors of violence and starvation, because it was written in Bengali. It was so witty and flavourful that people were afraid to translate it for the fear of losing the nuances of the original. As Afroz tells us in this interview, he had similar reservations. A book written by a scholar, it peppers history and political issues with lucidity and humour, making it an enjoyable experience for the lay reader. The author has a way of turning the mundane or intellectual into an amusing anecdote. During a conversation at an embassy party, the author through the voice of a fellow professor, makes a hilarious observation – but also, one that does convey much about Afghanistan despite its attempts at liberalisation.

Madame Vorvechievichi argued, ‘But there are mullahs in this country.’

“Dost Muhammad said reassuringly, ‘No need to worry, Madame. I know these mullahs very well. Their knowledge of religion is very little and I can teach you all of it in three days. However, a woman can’t be a mullah.’

Madame Vorvechievichi said angrily, ‘Why not?’

“With a deep sigh Dost Muhammad said, ‘Because she can’t grow a beard.’”

The book is speckled with multiple such instances. Along with these witticisms, the pathos of the country, the plight of the people is well captured by poignant observations:

“The real history of the country was buried beneath the soil, much like the way that Indian history was hidden in its Puranas, Mahabharata-Ramayana. Afghanistan is a poor country; Afghans do not have the time or the resources for archaeological excavations to write their own history.”

The writer, Syed Mujtaba Ali (1904-1974) a polyglot, scholar, traveller and humanitarian did just that – he recorded the history of the time he spent in Afghanistan, a time when a swift takeover from the liberal king Amanullah (1892-1960) was staged by Bacha-ye-Saqao (1891-1929) during the Afghan Civil War (1928-29).  Does this sound familiar, reminding one of the recent August 2021 takeover by Taliban?

A Humboldt scholar, Mujtaba Ali was conversant in fourteen languages, lived in five countries, including Afghanistan, where he had gone to teach. That his erudition never interfered but enhanced without marring the simplicity of rendition is what makes the book an attractive read for all lay persons. His astute observations are laced with wit and realism. The residue of the book lingers as the vibrant narrative flows — vicariously bringing to life, with humour and empathy, a culture that is distinct and yet warm in its uniqueness. His style is reflective of an in depth understanding of the situation and a sense of empathy for the common people with who he interacted daily – like his man Friday and the colleagues he mentions. For the author, everyone, from an uneducated villager to the crown prince (who invited him to play tennis), seemed to grow effortlessly into a rounded persona of a friend. All these have been transmitted by Afroz in the translation too. Translating two cultures across borders in a language that does not have all the words to capture the intimate nuances is not an easy feat, but it has fruited into an unusual and captivating read.

Nazes Afroz

Afroz’s maiden venture at translation was shortlisted for the Raymond Crossword Book Award. Afroz himself has spent a long stretch of time in Afghanistan. He joined the BBC in London in 1998. He was a senior editor in charge of South and Central Asia for a number of years. He has visited Afghanistan, Central Asia and West Asia regularly for over a decade. In 2013, he moved back to India. A passionate photographer, he writes in English and Bengali for various newspapers and magazines. In recent articles, he has been voicing his own concerns about developments in Afghanistan. In this interview, he reflects on what led him to translate the book, the situation as it was then and as it is now.  He dwells not only on the historic civil war as captured in the book but also on current day politics and the Taliban takeover.

You are a journalist. What got you interested in translating a Bengali classic from the last century?

I became a journalist five years after I read Deshe Bideshe. I was still a teenager when I picked up the book from a library rack. Reading Mujtaba Ali at that age had a profound impact on me. The erudition, the smooth sailing between multitude of cultures and languages, the gripping storytelling in his writing mesmerised me. I had never read anything like that in Bangla. Every Bengali reader of Syed Mujtaba Ali had felt the same way as I did. As a child I had the uncontrollable urge for travels and seeing the world. In Mujtaba Ali I found a role model. Deshe Bideshe stayed with me since then. It was one book that I would read two to three times a year from my teenage. So, by the time I decided to translate Deshe Bideshe more than thirty years after I first laid my hands on the book, I had read it for more than a hundred times! I knew its each page, I knew its each story and Afghanistan had seeped inside me permanently as I could relate to all the characters of the book.

While working for the BBC World Service in London, I had the opportunity to go to Afghanistan in 2002 soon after the Taliban were dislodged from power in a short war towards the end of 2001. I visited the country a number of the times in the following few years. As I travelled more, I befriended my BBC colleagues there and met other journalists and people on various walks of life. Some of them became good friends as well. I used to refer to events from the times of King Amanullah while discussing Afghanistan. They were surprised to hear all the details that I mentioned from a time that they said, ‘Even we don’t know!’ So, I mentioned how a Bengali scholar came from Kolkata to Kabul in 1927 and taught here, was a participant of the modernisation project of Amanullah by teaching English and French, played tennis with the crown prince Inyatullah (1888-1946) became an eyewitness of the rebellion against the king, got caught in the anarchy in the winters of 1928-29, and nearly perished starving before managing to go back to India. Hearing my story, they asked if there was any English translation of the book as they were keen to read. I told them that there was none as it was untranslatable!

As years went by and more and more of my Afghan friends got to know about Deshe Bideshe, they demanded that I did the translation. But I had my doubts. Would I be able to capture Mujtaba Ali’s unique language? Would I be able to transpose his wicked sense of humour? Would I be able to convey his erudition?

Eventually in 2011, I had already made up my mind to quit the BBC and move back to India. At that point my day-to-day workload in the BBC was significantly reduced. As I had ample time in hand, I thought I would attempt the translation. At that point I didn’t think of any publication; I wanted to do it just for fun and for my Afghan and non-Afghan friends who knew about the book and were keen to read it. I thought I would give them a taste of Mujtaba Ali’s writing by doing a few chapters. So, I did the first few chapters and shared them with a few friends. After reading those chapters they wanted to read more. I felt encouraged and I carried on with the translation for the following few months. Eventually the whole book was complete in about a year. After completing the translation, I let it sit for a few months before picking it up again and reread it as new text without looking at the original text. That exercise went on several times over the following one year till the final manuscript shaped up.

How many countries have you worked from? You were also in Afghanistan for several years I believe. Can you share your experiences?

My work has taken me to a dozen country or so. But as an intrepid traveller, I have visited more than 40 countries so far across four continents. Apart from my regular visits to Afghanistan, I spent months at a stretch on several occasions. Working in Afghanistan was certainly a unique experience. It wasn’t a country where one could travel and roam around freely. There were always the security alerts. One needed to negotiate security barriers everywhere. The accommodations – hotels, guesthouses were guarded by armed men. In the early years – in 2002 to 2004, there weren’t so much security in the hotels or guesthouses we stayed in. But that started to change from 2010 onwards as the Taliban had at that time started to regroup, and they made their presence felt in the country and in Kabul. Even at that time, cities like Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat were considered lot safer than Kabul. With increased and unpredictable attacks by the Taliban, the country became more and more edgy.

What was it about the book that drew you to it?

As I mentioned earlier, the uniqueness of Mujtaba Ali was that his erudition wasn’t frightening. He penned Deshe Bideshe almost twenty years after he left Kabul. By then, he had completed his PhD in comparative religion from Germany as a Humboldt scholar, did his post-doctoral research from al-Azhar university in Cairo, learned more than a dozen languages, and travelled extensively in Europe. So, even though his narrative of Afghanistan was drawn from what he had witnessed in his mid-twenties while teaching there, when he decided to write the book, he had acquired profound knowledge in philosophy, literature, culture and history of the world in many languages. The multilingual and multicultural references with an oblique yet gripping story-telling style infused with a wicked sense of humour that came in his writing, had been drawing ardent followers, including me, since 1948 when Deshe Bideshe was first published.

The book highlighted a growing divide between the minority with liberal education and the majority without education. Is that true still? Would you call the book relevant to the present-day crisis?

Yes, that divide between the educated and the not educated that Mujtaba Ali elicited in Deshe Bideshe is still there. But the gap has certainly reduced. The years between 1929 to 1978 had been relatively stable and peaceful in Afghanistan. Modern education had spread but without giving a jolt to the conservative society and keeping the clergy more or less content. In Kabul and other major cities, girls and women were getting more and more education; they were also seen in public life more. Following the coup through which the communists – the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan or PDPA came to power in 1978, there was a big push for universal education. This created a much bigger educated class. Women were the biggest beneficiary of that time in terms of acquiring knowledge and finding jobs. Women were joining the police and military as well. Following the capitulation of the PDPA government in 1992, the modern education system collapsed during the Mujahideen civil war years until 1996 and then after the takeover of virtually the whole of the country by the Taliban.

A large number of Afghans – almost a quarter of the population became refugees in neighbouring countries or elsewhere. When the American led international forces ousted the Taliban from power in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks in the USA, the population got a fresh chance to get education. Schools opened again. Both girls and boys went back to school. Internationally there were many programmes to give scholarships to Afghan women and men who were seeking higher education. As a country with a very young population (the average age of Afghanis is 18), a large number of students joined the public and private universities. So, tens of thousands of young women and men are now educated holding masters or even PhD degrees in the country. But the rural areas lagged behind. So, the gap is more of the city and rural areas.

Do you find similarities between the Afghanistan of then and of now?

The way the Afghan society works, based on its ethnic and tribal identities as witnessed by Mujtaba Ali, still exist. The stranglehold that the clergy had on the uneducated mass about a century ago has possibly changed; it’s been replaced with more political interpretation of their religion. The ethnic divisions have sharpened for multitude reasons – primarily due to the outside interference and the way ethnic groups have been used in the larger geo-political game of the world powers.

One of the issues that tussles through the book is that people were basically poor and lacked education. Syed Mustaba Ali spoke of the vicious cycles of poverty, how much has it changed from what he wrote and what you experienced? Please elaborate.

Mujtaba Ali talked about how poverty contributed to the cycle of unrest in Afghan history. Yes, that poverty still exists but with that, a toxic potion of religio-politics has been added to the cauldron. The conflict of the past four decades is more due to the global religio-political dynamics rather that its own poverty.

Did/ do you find parallels in the political situation where Amanullah and his brother escaped from the invading hardliner, Bacha-ye-Saqao? Would you see Bacha as a precursor of Taliban?

The only parallel that one can draw between 1929 when Amanullah and his brother Inayetullah fled and now in 2021 is that the suddenness of the events. Amanullah’s fall happened in months and Bacha took over Kabul in matter of days – almost the same way the Taliban took control of the country.

I don’t think Bacha-ye-Saqao or Habibullah Kalakani as he called himself, was a precursor of the Taliban. Bacha was more of an opportunist; he grabbed the opportunity that came his way. But the Taliban are more of an organised religio-political force what was the product of the geo-politics of the last decade of the Cold War. So, they two are not comparable.

Did the American or Russian intrusions into Afghanistan serve any purpose? Did they actually help the Afghans?

The short answer is no. Both the superpowers came to achieve their own strategic and foreign policy objectives. The Soviets came to expand their sphere of influence beyond their borders in Central Asia. In the process they were badly bruised and had to retreat. The Americans came to get hold of Osama-bin-Laden and dismantle the al-Qaeda infrastructure. It was never about helping a nation that had been devastated by decades of conflict in which they had no role. They just became pawns in the greater game of geopolitics.

By the descriptions in the book, Afghans seem to be fairly open as humans and yet, they have a distinct identity borne of their culture, their ethos — very different from any other. Was that undermined in any way by the attempts at modernisation?

Like many other rural, traditional and old societies, Afghans are hospitable and warm people. They are bound and governed by their age-old custom and codes of conduct.

Even when they are outside of their own land – in the West too, they extend their hospitality to strangers the same way they would in their own country and their behaviour would not differ much. It is not the question, if modernisation has or will undermine their tradition. They have had encounters with modernisation – the way modernisation is understood from the Western prism. Did that change the people who had experienced that modernisation in the time of Amanullah? Mujtaba Ali saw that the ‘so called’ modern people did not lose their Afghan-ness. The same can be said now. As a people they have largely remained unchanged despite connecting with the outside world like never before.

In the book, the international community was practically chased off Afghanistan. As the US troops left, one felt the same way. Do you feel intervention from the international community is necessary in Afghanistan? Why?

The backdrops of 1929 and the present are not identical. In 1929, the rebellion was against the king who had lost the support of the clergy. The king did not come to power with foreign intervention. So, the international community was not chased out in 1929. The Europeans left because of the chaos and the violence. The rebels didn’t fight with the foreigners. Yes, there was an armed opposition to the presence of the USA since the war in 2001, but that opposition wasn’t big enough to send the USA packing.

The USA left because they had achieved their goals in Afghanistan, and it was becoming hugely expensive for them to stay on. Many are also drawing parallels of the US’s departure from Afghanistan with their hasty retreat from Vietnam in 1975. But they were again not identical. In Vietnam, the USA visibly lost the war. But in Afghanistan they did not lose. They could have stayed on if they wanted but it made no sense to them to spend tens of billions of dollars each year. Hence, they left. They had been talking about withdrawing from Afghanistan since 2012, a year after they killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

The intervention that the Afghans had been experiencing since 1979 – first by the Soviets, then Pakistan and finally the US led Western nations, devastated the country and the ordinary Afghans had been paying for it with all they had. No external intervention is beneficial for any country. It’s not desirable to have; certainly not the way the global powers had been intervening for the past 40 odd years in various corners of the world. But the question is, if unspeakable atrocities are committed on certain sections of a country or society, what does the international community do? Should the international community intervene? The world powers have unfortunately always used these as pretexts to intervene to further and achieve their own objectives not only in Afghanistan but in other countries too.

In the book, only foreigners with work seemed to be in Afghanistan. Is/ Was it possible for tourists to visit Afghanistan, even before the Taliban took over?

In the last twenty years, Afghanistan had been unstable. Violent incidents kept happening. So, it was not advisable for tourist to go there. But the country always issued tourist visa for short visits! For a few years, Japanese tourist used to come to visit the ancient Buddhist sites like Bamiyan. That too waned due to the escalating conflict.

Thank you for this wonderful interview and also for the flawless translation of a classic memoir.

Click here to read a book excerpt from In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan.

(This is an online interview/review by Mitali Chakravarty.)

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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Essay

What Gandhi Teaches Me

By Candice Louisa Daquin

Generally, a Westerner shouldn’t try to dabble in writing about Indian great men because it’s that kind of appropriate-ism that caused so much misunderstanding and damage to begin with. The idea the West had all the answers, which clearly it does not. The idea someone whose country used to be a colonialist-force, had the right anymore to discuss countries that were colonized, can smack deeply of appropriate-ism or worse.  However, there are also ways we can appreciate what we know and transmit that without being patronizing or culturally insensitive.

I choose to consider Gandhi and his impact on the world, to remain in the middle ground. Neither applauding Gandhi without reservation, nor ignoring his incredible impact and influence on India and beyond. I don’t always do this, in the case of someone like Woody Allen or Charles Bukowski (hardly comparable) I cut them off immediately because despite being talented, their talent simply doesn’t measure against the harm they caused. With someone like Friedrich Nietzsche I would say, he has some brilliant perspectives, but his over-all views were too harmful for me to support him. Revisionist thinking is necessary, but sometimes like anything else, it can go too far and condemn significant people based on modern thinking that doesn’t take into account the mores of the time.

One of the hardest things in the world is when your heroes appear to fall. But in this case, there is so much positive about Gandhi I believe (and this is a personal belief), that his goodness encourages us to retain his relevance and enduring impact.

Firstly, Satyagraha – belief in using truth to resist evils with non-violence. Not the same as simply ‘truth’ or ‘verité’ as I would say in French. But more the ideal of believing in truth rather than being deceived or unable to believe. This is not just valuing truth, but believing in truth and thus, through that belief, knowing what is true (and reasonably, what is not).

I find this very interesting because whilst we all ‘think’ we know truth, obviously most of us do not. When does opinion and truth come together? Really holding an opinion has nothing to do with truth but with multiple versions of truth, how do we ever know which one is right? This is a discussion I have had many times in my life with friends of differing views. For a time, I wanted to be a Christian because I needed to believe in something and so many whom I knew were Christian would try to persuade me that was the ‘right’ (true) path. I was not convinced, despite my own attempts to be and it did not strike me as ‘truthful’ or ‘the truth.’ But the question is if people ‘doubt’ another’s truth then where does that end up?

I think of what Gandhi might have said; that truth is beyond conjecture, difference and trying to be ‘right’ the truth is there all along, it is immutable, transformative and fluid at the same time. And by truth he is not speaking purely of a particular faith, or a particular creed, but a universal truth. That is pretty esoteric for Westerners, I think overall Western thinking is prescribed, it feels comfortable having absolutes to follow and only demurs when it’s considered socially ‘trendy’ to disagree. While there may appear to be diverse thinking in the West, I would say it’s no more diverse than closed societies like China, the propaganda is just less obvious. After all, it’s not a societal dictate that has people unquestioning, it’s the mandate of the individual which links with the concept of  Swaraj – self-rule which ultimately led to home rule, the idea that led to an independent India.

If I think of his ideals today, how many of us believe in truth by considering how this lies within us and then without us. Isn’t it more common for us to be spoon fed a ‘truism’ from our respective societies, and even if we question that truth, we do so with groupthink, subscribing to a ‘truth’ without considering what believing in truth means in relation to ultimate truth? Thus, without individual self-policing (or by proxy, the questioning of something outside ourselves) and perhaps by being so busy, we take the easy road because to question everything can be an exhausting enterprise, and as Marx would say, we’re distracted by how busy we are in the machine of work. Leading to at times, mass delusion, or mass indifference, but definitely not an understanding or questioning of how to cultivate a belief in truth.

In fact, how important is truth to us? We bandy around the words, paying lip service to the idea, but without going further to consider the idea at a more personal and then social level. Truly believing in truth would be almost like letting go of everything and beginning over (as one could say Gandhi did) and as you rebuild, doing so with belief in truth in a pure sense of the word. I believe in truth and therefore reject attempts of subterfuge in favour of increasing my belief in the existence of truth. In many ways this is like believing in God without it becoming all about the details (scripture, deity, icons etc). It seems to have a lot in common with the pure heart of Buddhism too,

This leads to another principal of Gandhi’s — simplicity. Simplicity of an idea clears the clutter to reach at the truth. That simple. Practice simplicity and you will see more clearly. How many of us truly practice simplicity? I may try, but I fail, as most of us do, with this increasingly complicated pull and push of modern society, where I might rail against absurdities because I’ve been sucked into thinking they matter. Maybe some of us don’t have the luxury of opting out and going back to basics, maybe our lives are too interwoven with an unnecessarily complicated society that ‘demands’ we brush our hair, shine our shoes, iron our clothes, wipe our faces and face the world a certain way.

The perennial question has always been: is this the only way to live? And as we lose more and more of our simplicity, we may no longer care about other options, in favour of following the status quo. Furthermore, we may believe a complicated life with stress and demands, is the only way we can live, the only way things can work. I would think Gandhi could see, by giving things up, you gain more than by taking on more, and whilst his message may seem inapplicable to many, we can all learn something by doing less, wanting less, needing less.

After all, we cannot take what we accumulate with us, so the ideals of physical wealth seem less important than spiritual health. Many of us may brag about the car we drive, the house or neighborhood we live in, where our kids go to school or university, what they do for a living and so it goes on. Even in India, this is true, as the upper and middle classes seek to emulate what they have seen dominate the rest of the world and define themselves by those status markers that mean so much (and conversely, may mean so little). It is easy to get caught up in it.

I was never an acolyte of the materialistic world, but like most people, I had my insecurities and wanted to jump through  few hoops that I felt defined you as a success in society. When I became sick, it really showed me in a shocking way, how little those things mattered. I recall one day in hospital, my hair matted from throwing up, I just reached for my ponytail and cut half of it off. I had always been vain of my hair as it was thick and long and yet, it felt absurd to hold onto something for vanities sake when I was so sick and bereft of any normalcy. Likewise, when I went out into the common area of the hospital, I saw people sicker than me, and as we talked, I saw they were friendly irrespective of my not wearing make-up, or shoes (!) and in a gown with a green face. They saw ‘me’ and it felt like being a child again, liked for being ‘me’ instead of the ‘me’ I had become used to showing the world which was a counterfeit version. This principle then applies also to the notion of truth, and self-policing. Without an inflexible doctrine like religions, Gandhi’s philosophy was free to consider the whole rather than the individual steps toward being whole.

9/11 has just passed here in America my adopted country, and at its 20-year anniversary there has been much made of our withdrawal from Afghanistan, the country America invaded after 9/11 for sheltering the terrorists who were involved in the murder of so many people. Whether you are a Democrat, or Republican, many Americans believed someone had to pay for the atrocities committed on American soil. I recall at the time understanding both perspectives: the felt need for revenge or justice, and also, the need to lean towards understanding the how and the why of the incident to prevent it from recurring again.

When America withdrew from its longest and unsuccessful war against the Taliban, only to find the Taliban and Isis took over Afghanistan as if America had never been there, it did strike many as being a truly futile war (and we can argue, all wars are futile to some degree). How blatant was the takeover of a country America had wrongly thought was tamed from its former ‘enemies’.  Over time, it had just felt a lot like other wars (Vietnam etc.) where so much death, destruction and expense wrought no change, certainly not as Americans had visualised. Furthermore, did the taxpayer really want to leave behind US$ 2.26 trillion of their hard-earned money to equip Afghanistan? Yet that is exactly what happened along with the providing a free access to the very latest technology in the abandoned US embassy.

Why doesn’t America learn this lesson? That going to war doesn’t really change the ideology of an invaded country, that small bandit terror cells continue to thrive and even increase, because the promotion of American ideals isn’t always universal or accepted, and promoting them whilst invading a country, breeds as much resentment as it does thankfulness. By this I am not suggesting everything America did was negative, they truly tried to help the Afghani people, but at what cost? And did it work? I would say it did not. That’s perhaps because it is not the role of any one nation to police another or dictate to another.

But what do you do if you are a military person, and your country is attacked? It’s hard to imagine sitting there and debating how to have a non-violent discussion with the enemy. Yet that is exactly what Gandhi is most famous for. Satyagraha may seem a very outdated term, or it may appeal as a modern notion, either way it’s so laden with symbolism we hardly understand its core anymore. On the one hand, there is the Old-Testament idea of ‘an eye for an eye’ and then as Gandhi followed ‘An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind’.

Personally, I find truth in both, maybe truth can have a duality or not be as black and white as we often want it to be, but either way, non-violence is erasing the option for any kind of vengeance or payback, not an easy thing to accomplish when your enemy is being deeply unfair, as was the case with Gandhi watching the treatment of Indians in South Africa and then again with the colonial invading forces of the British in India. Gandhi founded the Natal Indian Congress in 1894, where he campaigned for the rights of indentured labourers in South Africa and protested against the system of requiring passes for Indians. Gandhi went on to organise the local Indian community, of all income brackets, into a passive resistance against this inequality. With these early eye-openers, Gandhi began his first experiences of community building into protest, utilizing peaceful means, against entrenched inequality and racism.

But every situation is different and 9/11 did not happen out of the blue, it came about as a result of decades of fighting between Christian and Muslim extremists on both sides. It also came about because the West wanted the Muslim world to accept some things, they found unacceptable. When asked why he caused the 9/11 attacks, Osama Bin Laden said because Saudi Arabia, his homeland, was in bed with America in going after Saddam Husain and others in Iraq. Why did he find this so offensive? In part because he didn’t like American military in his country, especially women soldiers. His brand of extremist Islam did not believe women equal to men and found that an abomination.

What is ironic about this extremist thinking, which can be found in all faiths, is how hypocritical those who believe it seem to be. All the terrorists who came to America to attack on 9/11 visited brothels and took full advantage of the Western ‘evils’ they preached against. They would argue that they had no respect for those people because they were ‘evil’ – in essence justifying their behavior based on a greater sin. But who are we to dictate who is more ‘sinful’ than another, and surely, if we believe in truth, we don’t break it when tempted by the very thing we condemn? Going back to Gandhi’s ideal of belief in truth, one who does, would not be hypocritical.

Yet so many humans are. Some people who condemn homosexuals have secretly practiced homosexuality. People who condemn women might be profiting from their exploitation. Those kinds of hypocrites negate the truth of their original argument. If we simplify the argument, we have no legs to stand on. Oppression of others goes against all religions but is practiced by all religions. I think Gandhi saw this palpably and was trying to redirect us to see how absurd this was. And what greater way than to practice non-violence against a violent oppressor? It literally was an act of faith, and incorporated belief in truth, and political self-policing. Is this not the ultimate reality? ‘Ahimsa’ isn’t just ‘non-violence’ because no one principle exists in isolation from ‘other’ in this case, love. Without love there is no mercy, there is no wish for non-violence. It is the connection between the intension and the outcome that produces Gandhi’s ‘Ahimsa’ (non-violence).

If all life is one, then all violence perpetrated against self or other is experienced as a whole, the welfare of human beings at the core. The very opposite of the competitive consumerism of Capitalism, which America is known for. And with this, Gandhi predicted the future, a practical need to eat less meat, (vegetarianism) or to respect life (by not consuming animals or exposing animals to suffering) relating back to the idea all living things are connected. I recall as a child being deeply impressed with this concept and it was one reason I myself became a vegetarian at a very young age. To many in the West, vegetarianism is considered the purview of the privileged, and I now understand that, because if you live a very simple life, it’s often very hard to be vegetarian and consume enough calories. To an extent, being vegetarian is abstinence. Many people with eating disorders become vegetarian or vegan as a form of orthorexia. Many middle-class kids have the ‘fad’ of vegetarianism. But the core behind Gandhi’s form vegetarianism or veganism is more in line with Hindu/Buddhist perspectives of respecting living things and causing no suffering.

The hardest principle of Gandhism I have encountered is faith. For some, this is the easiest as they already possess faith, as Gandhi did. He said: “I must confess that the observance of the law of continence is impossible without a living faith in God, which is living Truth. It is the fashion nowadays to dismiss God altogether and insist on the possibility of reaching the highest kind of life without the necessity of a living faith in a living God. I must confess my inability to drive the truth of the law home to those who have no faith in and no need for a Power infinitely higher than themselves. My own experience has led me to the knowledge that fullest life is impossible without an immovable belief in a living law in obedience to which the whole universe moves.” But unlike the shaming faith separating gender and men and women, Gandhi didn’t impose those divisions: “It is not woman whose touch defiles man, but he is often himself too impure to touch her ……” As a woman who disliked the inferior status given women in most mainstream religions, I found Gandhi’s perspective on this, refreshing and egalitarian. I cannot speak on faith as I do not possess it adequately, but I can see its place in Gandhi’s principles and understand it didn’t come to him all at once, but through the experience in part of the other values he lived with. They built into on one another and are interconnected.

Gandhi’s belief included celibacy. “Brahmacharya … means control in thought, word and action, of all the senses at all times and in all places.” The conclusion in some ways to the fulfilment of all the other principles. Those who find ways to condemn Gandhi, point to the potential for scandal by Gandhi’s relationship with Sarla Devi Chaudharani, daughter of Rabindranath Tagore’s elder sister owing to materials where Gandhi called Sarla Devi his ‘spiritual wife’. Yet in Gandhi’s letters to his friends, Gandhi explained that he called Sarla Devi his ‘spiritual wife’ because theirs’ was a ‘wedding based on knowledge.’ Why this matters, is Brahmacharya is related to celibacy and people often question whether any man is capable of celibacy or whether it was just the outward appearance of.

Personally, I’m not sure it’s as important as others feel it is, to discern whether Gandhi remained celibate, because I do not place importance on celibacy, but I understand if you are literally reading Gandhi, you would hope he did what he said he did. I wonder why this matters so much and why sex with a woman (or man) would be such an issue for those who love Gandhi (or for that matter Jesus, because many thought, he had a wife and this idea alone, scandalized others). Perhaps when it doesn’t matter if a spiritual leader has sex or not, we’ll really be free of all shame attached to sexual relations. Although for Gandhi it was more about control over impulses that could sway him from his path. Gandhi wrote in a letter on the subject; “I have reached a definition of a spiritual marriage. It is the partnership between two people of the opposite sex where the physical is wholly absent. It is therefore possible between brother and sister, father and daughter. It is possible only between two brahmacharis in thought, word and deed.”

I understand for him, perhaps passion was an inflammation of sense and morality, and this would distract him. Gandhi was thought to have developed his perspectives on carnal passions by concluding a person cannot selflessly serve humanity without accepting poverty and chastity. This seems an enduring theme among many holy men and I’m not one to dispute it, although I think it’s different for a woman. When Gandhi said: “physical union for the sake of carnal satisfaction is reversion to animality,” he may have set himself up to be perceived as unrealistically idealist and unrealistically puritanical.

On the other hand, like anything, we have to take the influences of the time-period into account; what Gandhi was responding to, what he witnessed, what he saw occur, how those played into his striving for inner-strength. I see it like trying to translate what a great painter meant by their painting, hundreds of years later. Ultimately, we do, but that painter if alive today, may say; ‘oh no you got it all wrong.’ So, when people point to the strange things Gandhi did in his Brahmacharya experiments, they could be very right, or it could be one piece of a much larger puzzle. We are all twisted by our life experiences, but we expect Gandhi to be free of this, even as he said he wasn’t. Perhaps the shame of not being with his father during his last moments as he went to his bedroom to have sex with his wife, was among some of the reasons he embraced Brahmacharya, Gandhi was after-all, human.

Trying to understand the motives of someone born in another era involves taking into account their worldview as influenced by that era. Gandhi was from a middle-class family, and we know those born into higher classes are often received differently to those from other classes. This isn’t right, but it’s the way the world has operated and blaming the person born into that family is blaming the wrong person. It is the system that perpetuates this, just as now, most ‘notable’ people come from some degree of privilege than obscurity (with significant exceptions). Gandhi was a product of that privilege but that’s not quite the same as being privileged in thought. Likewise, it’s easy to say, he got married at 13 and had 4 kids, so it was relatively easy to become celibate, but without experiencing that personally, that’s an assumption based on reaction, not fact.

I can understand the unease of revisiting historically important figures, the desire to applaud them but also the need to criticize their failings. I think if Gandhi were alive today, he would say ‘have at it’ and be open to criticism, although possibly he would find today’s world untenable, for who really knows how a historical figure would greet the future? We become the future by evolving. Only 20 years ago, the idea of gay-marriage would be abhorrent to most, so much transforms with acceptance and shifting of ideas. Some of that actually comes from thinkers like Gandhi who perhaps paved the way in some form, for the future, even if that future is quick to criticize him. But just as we must respect our grandparents view things differently from us, often through no fault or hate on their part but their upbringing, we cannot always realistically expect people, however smart, to transform on par with our own insights; that’s just not realistic or how we work as humans.

Either way, whether you are successful in incorporating the principles of Gandhi-ism in your life, or not, value lies in taking a leaf out of some of his philosophies. I don’t agree with everything I have read of Gandhi’s beliefs, but he was the first one to say, we contradict ourselves, as we grow, and nothing we do is set in stone. He was continually questioning and evolving, and that to me seems far more realistic than to be a static deity demanding fealty without question.

I remember buying my Goddaughter the kids book; The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe and worrying that her generation may not find it as bewitching as mine did. Some things don’t age well. Others endure. But on average, there are always parts that last the test of time. Instead of being precious about Gandhi, we should be open to questioning his perspectives without rancor, because he would have wanted us to. At the same time, dismissing him because he held some views that at the time were considered normal but are now unfashionable, is to dismiss the value he brought to the table when we discuss faith and philosophy. If we demand perfection, we’ll not find anyone to be inspired by, at the same time it is not wrong to want to redefine norms as we evolve as a society, just the way Gandhi hoped we would.

Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

Categories
Stories

Do Not Go!

By Moazzam Sheikh

Pleased, beaming, yum yumming, she finished cooking pasta sauce the way he liked ‒ a bit more garlic and a dash of chilli powder ‒ and turned down the flame real low, the sauce simmering indolently. She was about to reach for a packet of flat spinach noodle to add to the boiling water when she fully realized that he wasn’t home yet. Mid-November and already dark beyond the windows, he could catch a cold, a flu, perhaps pneumonia. Touch wood, she whispered. One could trip, break wrist, hip, summoning visits to the hospital, restricted movement, crutches. A train of thought too frightening, she shook her head and cleared her throat. She set down the pasta on the countertop, unopened, reading the label mindlessly.

He went for his walk in the daylight though sometimes he did step out in the late afternoon. However, as far as she could remember he always returned before sundown. His routine she could depend on for the last two years. He must have misjudged, she shuddered, suddenly feeling hot in the kitchen. Although she breathed deep to calm her nerves, she couldn’t concentrate. The moment she tossed noodles into the water followed by a pinch of salt and half a spoon of olive oil, she regretted it. Pasta didn’t like to be left in water half-cooked. Agitation nudging her fear, she felt she’d have to turn off the stove and go out looking for him if he didn’t return in the next five minutes.

Five minutes passed and she frittered away a few more, paralyzed by indecision, when she cocked her ear to the noise of feet shuffling out in the corridor, nearing the apartment door. It turned out to be a sound conjured by hope. She snapped out, turned off the stove, and grabbing her keys and a light sweater, which Ronny had bought for her on her birthday, exited the building. Encountering the actual darkness which the onset of winter had ushered, despite the street pole lights, her heart sank further.

He could be anywhere, she inferred, and not knowing where that anywhere was, she could be walking in the opposite direction, away from him, lengthening his torment. She took a deep breath, again, and walked to the corner where her avenue intersected the busy street. From there she tried to scan the foot traffic in four directions. Her eyes traveling as deep as a block and beyond, and despite the thinness of the crowd due to the nippy winter air, she failed to spot a lost figure resembling him. She walked eastward unaware of the silent prayers her subconscious mind had been offering with little regard for her resolve throughout her adult life to not rely, as she put it many times, on the crutches of religion. She recognised it and let the prayers continue consoling her heart recalling the distinction she sometimes made between religion and spirituality. The fact that she also didn’t consider herself very spiritual, though nothing wrong with being one, amounted to very little right now. She was most concerned, at the moment, with his safety; her personal problems could wait.

A big sigh of relief! She spotted him outside Fresh Donuts, looking lost as she called out to him from across the street.

“I don’t know what happened. I just couldn’t figure out which way to go,” he explained, embarrassed.

She’d too felt like that many times, she came this close to voicing her thought, mesmerized by the doldrums, juggling personal life, work, moral obligations. As they walked home, she holding him by the arm lest he trip, he said he knew she’d be worried. The more he worried the more he lost his sense of reference. When he thought of asking a stranger for help, he shied away because he couldn’t remember the address or the cross street. He had enough sense to accept that he stood lost on Clement Street. That didn’t help much though, he laughed. She told him she was grateful and impressed he didn’t panic. Help would’ve come sooner or later. Nervous giggles escaped from their mouths as they neared the apartment. A combination of relief and premonition. At home, he went straight to the bathroom to relieve himself and heard her say that the pasta was going to be a little below his standard, not what counts for normal, a little soggy, fluffy perhaps, but the yummy sauce, she promised, would make up for it. She didn’t have to tell him about the tiny bit of rum she’d added to the sauce.

“Don’t worry, honey. Your father is hungry and will eat anything.”

She wanted to say thank god, you’re an easy eater. Not like Ammi, but she bit her tongue. When they sat down to eat, she hesitated but eventually wondered aloud if he remembered her phone number, which to her relief he rattled off without a hitch. Ah, the memory had returned. He said he’d eventually stop a passerby. She felt relieved and the food began to amble down to her stomach with more ease. The sips from her beer soothed her throat. She wished he’d share her beer, relax his strict adherence to the doctor’s advice. Perhaps another time. That night when she went to bed, her mind drifted to her brother struggling to survive in New York, in and out of rehab several times for the last couple of years. He’d already done his bit, taking care of their parents till mother died, mercifully quickly, without a whisper in her sleep. A silent heart attack, they said. Soon after her brother’s life unraveled. He couldn’t take care of father, who then faced a choice of moving back to Lahore or San Francisco.

She avoided sharing with Ronny the episode of father getting lost, but when she saw him a few days later she realized he had the right to know what’s been on her mind. Despite all the good qualities Ronny possessed as a human being, and lover, there was a cold side to him. A person is like a coin, Ronny relished using that metaphor, with two sides, at least. Where she saw his insensitivity, or impatience, towards certain things, he saw drawn boundaries, standing up for what was right, his rights, personal values, spaces, desires, likes and dislikes, cultural or personal baggage and so on. After having dated for more than a year, they were going through the process of exploring the possibility of getting hitched to each other. They both agreed they wouldn’t mind having a child or two. Her eggs were drying up. With a sense of urgency, one day Ronny did ask if she’d consider marrying him first in order to get pregnant. Though he was far from being Mr. Perfect, she’d already weighed the pros and cons of living with her boyfriend Ronald Ngyuen. Their plans got disrupted when Mr. Bhutta — that’s how Ronny preferred to address her father instead of by first name ‒ was brought by her to live in San Francisco. Despite old age, her father would’ve liked to live near his son. Even if that meant moving into a facility for elderly living. He also suggested moving back to Lahore. Neither choice was practical when emotional and economic reasons were taken into consideration.

Kausar initially cheered up to the idea of having father around. His liberal, open-minded side had pleasantly surprised her when he indicated that he considered his children adult now and the fact that they weren’t living in Pakistan anymore, his son and daughter had all the right to lead their lives without any pressure from the parents. Her mother turned out to be a bit more conservative than the children had realised, but she too sided with her husband’s wisdom. The couple tried their best to warm up to whoever their children were dating in college, and when a new partner showed up, they accepted him or her. There was a brief period, before the mother passed away, when the parents wondered if the mess their son had found himself in was, in fact, something do with their hands-off attitude once he went to college. But in their defense, they argued, Why, then, had Kausar turned out fine?

He went missing again. That time she couldn’t find him anywhere in the neighborhood. Blocking off a deep sense of foreboding, she called Ronny, busy assisting with the mounting of his photographs for an exhibition.

“I’d call police,” he suggested coldly. “They’ll spot him soon wandering around, lost.”

“I wondered if you were on your way, we could drive around in your car and look for him,” she said calmly, stifling her panic.

She knew he couldn’t come just like that. His suggestion made sense. Yet her fingers froze recalling the incident, was it somewhere in New Jersey? A cop seriously injured an elderly Indian man on a neighborhood stroll. He’d been visiting his son to help babysit his year-old grandson. A woman called the police about a suspicious looking man wandering around her neighborhood. The man from India, short and effeminate looking, in his mid-fifties, wearing glasses with thick lenses, did not speak English, only Hindi and Gujrati, was admiring neat looking cookie cutter suburban houses, their large fronts, mowed lawns, trimmed hedges. The already irritated cop lost his patience and slammed the visitor to the floor, paralyzing him forever. The jury, comprising of majority of white men, acquitted the cop because the man who’d come to help his son and daughter-in-law had ‒ the defense attorney pointed out ‒ committed a misdemeanor by leaving the house without identification papers. It made sense to people defending the cop. Don’t frustrate a cop; it doesn’t matter whether you pose a threat or not. The burden of failure to communicate is on you. She shook her head. She only hoped the San Francisco cops had more humanity and better training. Tonight!

In the end she dialed 911. Yes, an older man matching his name and description had been reported lost and an ambulance had taken him to General Hospital. Ronny had to stop everything and drive her to the hospital’s emergency ward. Thank god, he’s okay. He smiled sheepishly, his guilty smile although it wasn’t his fault. The old man had blanked out and made the mistake of approaching a passerby, who, unable to help and make father remember Kausar’s address, or phone number, had taken upon himself to call the ambulance. As per their procedure, by law, they had to run all kinds of tests now, check his vitals, to make sure he was fit to leave. It’s going to take a couple of hours. A senior nurse told her she’d have to be patient. Ronny had to return to help with the exhibition but would come back soon to take them home.

“What happened, Abba?” she asked, patting his hand, consoling a worried, defeated father.

She dreaded the moment she would have to contemplate the possibility of dementia snatching him from her. The fact that he actually stood right below her flat but couldn’t recognise it left Kauser stunned. What is he going to forget next? she wondered. As melancholy crept in, she tried to fight it off with positive thoughts. She was going to do everything in her power to make sure he didn’t succumb to the cruel malady without a fight. She admitted she could never have imagined it’d come knocking on her door so soon. She made up her mind to read up on the latest research, borrow or buy books on physical and mental exercises, and foods that help keep memory strong. She wouldn’t let him forget his wife and children’s names.

He didn’t forget their names or the names of his friends, past neighbors, even colleagues. As days went by, she felt relieved seeing him settle down a bit while accepting that he couldn’t venture out alone anymore. He’d never been the stubborn type. He could be feisty but not of late. She relied on Ron and one of her neighbors Doug to give company to her father when she had to go out. Thankfully, she could do most of her work from home. Both Ron and Doug enjoyed conversations with him on topics of mutual interest, especially foreign policy and history. Father’s humility impressed Doug, who besides having a crush on Kauser which he’d hinted at a few times, studied History with a minor in International Relations at Kent, Ohio State. On and off, he’d been reshaping the old man’s worldview crystalized by what he called Eurocentric education, although her father considered himself a political person, having taken part in ending General Ayub’s reign. Even when Bhutto was hanged, he openly criticized the military takeover under General Zia, right around when she left Pakistan. It’s a miracle that he didn’t lose his job at the Mayo Hospital.

“It’s the rigor, intensive studying at medical schools which kill critical analysis among most doctors. It decimates nuanced thinking. Otherwise, they’re very intelligent people,” Doug once said to her after he’d finished a long conversation with father on the topic of African countries and their independence from European powers. Ron and Doug, on the other hand, tolerated each other courteously. Doug saw Ron as a typical Vietnamese American unable to criticize America openly lest someone accused him of ungratefulness. Or worst still, telling him to go back to Vietnam! He found Ron’s critique of modern society, by which Ron meant modern western society, inadequate through his photography. Ron was content with what he’d been doing for the last several years, visiting Vietnamese seniors all over the country, photographing them in black and white, their faces, creased and ageless, eyes nostalgic and confused, capturing the front of their homes and apartments, the interior where east and west adjusted around each other. True, he avoided asking overt political questions, he still considered his work political. Kauser agreed with both.

Without appearing to be overt, Kauser played mind games with Father to see if he forgot important names. She asked him about their childhood, his childhood, when he first saw Ammi-jan, whether he remembered his grandparents, his neighborhood in Ludhiana before Partition. To her surprise his memory was crystal clear. She began to breathe a sigh of relief. What a scare he gave her! She’d hate to part with him, send him to a nursing home or back to live with one of her cousins. Better to be at the mercy of your own children, she insisted, however spoiled they might be, than the nurses or distant relatives.

“But what about your life, Kay?” asked Ronnie rhetorically one afternoon as they sat at a sidewalk table of a bar for happy hours near her apartment. She had set Mr. Bhutta up with munchies and a clean print of a classic of early Hindi cinema which she’d found on Youtube. One certain way to tie him down for two hours, she smiled sadly.

“What about it?” she asked, puzzled.

“I thought we were supposed to try living together . . .”

She picked up where he trailed off, “Get married,” she paused, sighed, “and make a go at having a child.”

Was she smirking or smiling? She couldn’t tell because her face had quickly reverted to appearing placid. Then as she took a sip of her drink, her forehead furrowed a bit.

“Kay, I know you have a lot on your mind and it’s affecting your work,” he waited for her to interrupt him, but she just looked away, far to the end of the block milling with neighbors out shopping. “But I am not sure what your plan is.”

“Plans about what, babe?” she asked without irritation.

“Oh, forget it!” he said, pretending to relax. “This is not the time.”

She fixed him with a stare. He dared her. Her face softened, a crease appearing around the side of her mouth. A beautiful woman, he thought. Still, he didn’t smile back.

“Are you quitting on me, sweetie?”

“No!” he replied. “I’m afraid I might lose you.”

She was tempted to ask how? Instead, she opted for silence. She knew the answer. Both Ronny and she had small apartments, and with rents the way they were, they couldn’t afford to quit their rent-control apartments and risk eviction. She hated to see her father as a burden or a barrier to her happiness. When he looked at her again, she nodded gently, conveying that she understood his apprehension. She placed her hand on his, then squeezed it.

“Me too. We have to trust,” she said.

As they walked back to Kausar’s apartment, they held each other close, her head nudging into his chest despite they almost tripped a few times when their legs bumped into each other. Yet they persisted, mimicking an image from a movie most likely, ignoring the awkwardness his short height had produced, bravely laughing it off. They kissed, outside the building, under the faint glow of streetlights, her ajar eyes catching an anti-Trump sign in a neighboring window.

“I’ll come over soon as he falls asleep,” she said. 

She heard him puttering around in the kitchen when she entered. Had the movie ended? She called out, asking if he needed help with something, as she took off her shoes. He emerged, smiling nervously, like a child caught rummaging through kitchen closets looking for cookies and candies.

“How was the film?” she asked.

“I’d seen it before but had forgotten it. One of Dilip’s best I think,” he said. “His acting so subtle, so controlled.”

“So you enjoyed it. That’s good.”

The screen had been turned off. The plates were still there which she collected now. Only when she went to the kitchen did she notice one of his shirts slung across his shoulders. Was he thinking of changing into a clean shirt? A dress shirt? She observed him quietly. He stood in the living room for a long moment, then turned to the wall and took a step. She couldn’t see him, so she left the kitchen and hid herself from him, beside the door. He was looking at the calendar. She’d forgotten to change the month. Did he know it was the wrong month?

“Why do you have that shirt on your shoulder?” she asked casually.

He noticed the shirt, surprised, held it, examined it, still puzzled, then looked at Kauser for an answer, smiling vulnerably. “Did you put it here?”

“Me? Abba, why would I? You must have done it.”

“Why would I do it? You’re crazy,” he mocked her and put the shirt down on a chair.

She called Ronny a little later and made up an excuse about feeling a little ill. Could be a cold, no, not a flu, she hoped, but rest was probably the best option. He said, okay, he too was feeling tired and ready to hit the sack.

A few days later when she returned from Ronny’s place a little after one in the morning, he was gently snoring away. Relieved, she decided to take a quick shower. His snores had stopped. She changed into her pajamas and crawled under her duvet covers. She’d hoped to fall asleep right away, after a nice time with Ronny, but found herself tossing and turning, questioning if it was the absence of his snores that disquieted her. She zoned out briefly before becoming fully awake. She got out and tiptoed to his room only to be shocked to notice the blanket pushed aside. Not in bed. When did he get up? Is he in the kitchen or living room? Both rooms were unlit, though her eyes by now had adjusted to the dark.

“Abba?” but no response came.

Did he collapse? She rushed through the apartment switching on the lights. He was nowhere. And then she noted the unlocked front door. She almost fainted. It was ten after three in the morning. Oh god! she cried. She chided herself instantly as she recognized her first impulse was to call Ronny.

Standing at the corner, she looked as far as her eyes could see, north, south, east, west, deserted streets with shuttered down shops, a sprinkle of cars parked on either side of the streets. She felt paralyzed. Too scared to cover the neighborhood territory on her own at this time of night. An uncanny fear, a sense of embarrassment, made her resist calling police. What if they arrest her for elderly negligence! What could she have done to stop him from sneaking out like this? Tears began to roll out of her eyes. Who could she wake for help? She dialed her brother’s number with unsteady fingers. It rang and rang with no possibility of leaving a message. Unawares, she shouted into the phone, “Come on, for god’s sake, pick up the phone! Abba’s missing! Again!” She cursed a few times before hanging up.

Taking a deep breath, she dialed 911. A professional, sympathetic voice came on. She was about to offer Father’s description after a standard drill of questions when she heard the front door in her building’s portico opening. She was startled to see Doug and her voice faltered.

“Kay, your father is with me,” he said.

“What? . . . Wait. Officer, I think my neighbor has found him . . . Thank you,” and as she hung up, she asked Doug, “How the hell did he . . .” and she burst out crying.

Doug walked up and held her, escorting her back into the building.

“I’m so afraid of him getting hurt,” she explained through sobs.

“He’s back at your place,” he said. “Lights were on in every room, and I knew you’d gone looking for him. You can always wake me up.”

She thanked him before finding her own balance with her feet searching for the stairs. He followed her down the corridor.

She stopped. “What did he say?”

“I heard the knock. Honestly, I was worried,” he giggled. “I opened the door and there he was, standing, looking confused. He almost didn’t recognise me when I said, ‘What’s wrong Anjum?’ Instead, he said he was hungry.”

“Just three doors down he lost his bearing?” she marveled aloud.

She knew from his expression that the fear in her eyes was clearly discernible. She tried to soften the tension on her face. They now stood outside her apartment, momentarily, lost for words.

“You should get some sleep, Doug,” she said.

“I won’t be able to. I’ll be up if you need me,” he replied before turning.

“I won’t be either,” she paused. “You’re welcome to come in if you like.”

“You sure?”

She nodded before pushing the door. She could hear his snores. Instead of calming her down, the sound made her furious.

Kauser didn’t bring up her father’s encroaching dementia, only found it ironic, when Ronny began talking about his exhibition of photographs of the Vietnamese American diaspora. He found the population of elders divided into half and half, those who had somehow managed to live with or nearby their children and those who either lived alone or in nursing homes.

“I plan on visiting Vietnam after the reception. You wanna come with me?”

Insensitive! was her first reaction, but she rebuked herself for focusing on the negative.

“Is it to see your father?” she asked. “I hope he’s not ill.”

“No, he’s very fit. I just want to visit, not particularly him, but he’ll be there of course. I want to surprise him.”

“You know I can’t. I have to sort out . . .”  she said.

Two weeks passed without an incident, except that once or twice he mixed up Kauser with his wife and his sister. It could be dementia, or it could be just old age. She, too, once called Ronny by her ex’s name John, the bread maker, always called him Johnny, never John.

Ronny flew to Vietnam for a month but left the idea of extending his stay open. Kauser understood now more than ever. He’d mentioned it before, though always wavering, afraid of encountering a father who, after defecting to the North, had abandoned him and his mother, who had no choice but to rely, as she put it, on the help provided by her brother employed by the Americans.

When Ronny, a year old, got sick, and was taken to the hospital, his mother and Ronny were eventually taken care of by an American soldier, a nurse until the Fall of Saigon. Thereafter, they continued with the American. The two younger sisters born in Cotati, California, lived together as a family. That was why it was always difficult to watch Vietnam War movies which portrayed all South Vietnamese women as whores for the pleasure of American soldiers, Ronny had explained it to Kauser and others. Dylan, Ronny’s stepdad died young from heart trouble, overweight, diabetes, and failed kidneys. It was more from grief that his mother, Ronny alleged, cursed Dylan for things which didn’t make sense to him or his sisters, having moved away to different colleges. One of the sisters, the elder, said that Dylan’s death was caused by his memories of American War in Vietnam. Kauser had met the mother and sisters several times and liked them very much, enjoyed getting together with them in Cotati, despite her dislike for similar places, over Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“Dylan was more a Buddhist, than Presbytarian,” intoned Ronny’s mother.

The sisters grew up more or less atheists, even before they moved to Cal, two years apart.

Kauser’s brother had promised to visit soon, said he’d been going clean and things were starting to work out on his end. There was something about the whole conversation which failed to convince her of a probable happy ending. After speaking with him she’d weep a bit. What is he thinking? she wondered. Is he going to take father off her hands? Abba was also becoming less and less conversant, even forgetting the fact that he’d just been fed, getting annoyed or angry that Kauser was depriving him of food.

“That’s elder abuse, Kauser!” he admonished her weakly.

She couldn’t stop laughing and hugged him tight, fearing she was losing her grip on him. She saw him one mid-morning sitting by the window, staring at the foot traffic, and heard a voice in her head whisper, “He’s gone!” She couldn’t help but shout, “Don’t leave me, father!”

He turned and, as if feeling caught, defended himself, “I am not going anywhere. What made you think so?” he pleaded rather than demanded.

Then she heard her own voice in the realm of silence, “No, you are. Abba, you’re already gone,” walking away.

Suddenly, her friend Miriam was back from traveling and offered to help out with being around her father when Kauser needed to step out for work. Doug was there too. Thanks to her supervisor, she could accomplish most of her work from home. Her brother had to postpone his visit for personal reasons, as he said with an added stress, not because of medical reasons.

“I understand. But I need you to sort this out before something happens,” she told him over the phone and regretted it.

In reply, she heard a sigh. She knew once off the phone, he’d weep too. Perhaps she could think about moving there, but the rent situation was untenable.

“I can’t find him, Kay,” he laughed a sarcastic laugh. “They say he just disappeared one day about six months ago.” She was speaking to Ronnie.

She failed to detect any pain in his voice.

“Oh my god!” she cried sympathetically. “What are you going to do? How are you feeling?”

“I don’t know. I have looked around at all the possible suspect places. I can’t do much.”

“Are you taking care of yourself?”

“Yes, I am. How about you?”
 “I’m okay. Are you coming back then?” she asked.

There was a silence that seemed to linger a tad too long.

“Hello?”

“I’m still here,” he paused again. “I think I’m going to stick around a little longer.”

“I see.”

“There’s this guy, a very good photographer; he wants to do a joint project. About the war,” he explained.

She felt terrible, deflated after hanging up. It turned out to be a wise decision to go out on a stroll with her father. They grabbed fresh spring rolls and sesame balls and ate them in the park watching kids run around the play structure, kicking sand, shrieking, tripping, crying.

“You were like him,” he pointed to a little boy who seemed to burst with energy. “Maqsood was the opposite.”

“You mean Qasim!” she corrected him.

“Yes, Qasim,” he seemed startled. “Who’s Maqsood?” he added before he broke down, weeping.

She didn’t comfort him, simply watched him; just let him be, she reasoned. Perhaps that’s all that was needed to cure his dementia! He stopped soon, raised his head ‒ a complete absence of tears. As if he forgot he’d just wept a minute ago. The food preoccupied him now. She struck up light conversation now and then, but she really wasn’t in the mood. Her thoughts wandered. She needed to be in control of her thoughts or else she wouldn’t survive. The way things were, she told herself, she wouldn’t. She saw herself succumbing to mild depression. Or it is anxiety? she asked. She must preoccupy herself with chores to stop bleak thoughts from entering her head. She saw herself walking out of the park to 19th Avenue which turns into a freeway to Golden Gate Bridge, her thumb sticking up offering herself to be hitchhiked to never come back. His, “Look at that brat,” chuckling, brought her back from her reverie.

Next time they spoke she couldn’t share Ronny’s excitement over his trips into the countryside collecting material for his project.

“There are so many stories here to be told,” he said excitedly.

He went on and on. A method of deflection.

“I am reaching a breaking point,” she said.

“Babe, tell Qasim to come and help out,” Ronny advised.

“He’s coming,” she lied. “I’m just tired.”

The real reason Ronny went to Vietnam was to distance himself from her personal problem, she was convinced. Her father’s health had started to affect her work now, not to mention her personal life. Abba’s doctor had brought up the subject of looking into the possibility of admitting him to a senior facility such as Laguna Honda. It sent shivers down her spine. There would be no way to know if the staff abused him. She imagined forgetting to visit, spacing out, forgetting him. Or worst, he not recognising her. Although she let it sink in, those hard choices had to be made, she wished she could just take him to Pakistan, where relatives and neighbours still stepped in. There was no one she could now rely on, she mourned. Abba had not stayed in touch with anyone because he got tired of helping out for his children worked in the US. He also encouraged the children to not stay in touch with their cousins. And now she was on her own. Just last week she overslept and missed an important meeting. Last night, she had to decline an invitation to Sheila’s baby shower, and she already knew, unless she could get Doug or Miriam to be with Abba, she wouldn’t be able to go to Ajit’s party. An old news item resurfaced in her mind, about a middle-aged Indian immigrant in Foster City hitting his eighty-year-old, wheel-chaired father on the head with a hammer, not with the intension of killing him but so, he mistakenly believed, he could be admitted to a nursing home; he couldn’t look after the old man alone. Sick! She shook off the thought. How people could stoop so low in difficult circumstances, she cried silently.

Qasim was back in rehab. His estranged wife, Laurie, called to tell Kauser that she and her kids have washed their hands off. Narcissism, she said, was at the root of all his problems and now no one could help him, let alone expecting help from him. When Laurie enquired about Anjum, Kauser told her how he’d tried to sneak out again. “Thank god, he couldn’t unlatch the door from inside, and the noise alerted me. I can’t even go to the bathroom!” Kauser pretended to laugh. Laurie understood as only another woman could, relating to her own situation while taking care of two very demanding children without her husband. Laurie said she wished she lived nearby. That sentiment touched Kauser deeply. She didn’t want to worry her sister-in-law too much by telling her that his appetite had also dipped. Should she end father’s misery by suffocating him with a pillow? She thought of shocking Laurie but ended up feeling awful.

That night Kauser snapped at her father for the first time in her recent memory when he began about his father serving in the Indian British army on the African front. She told him curtly to stop beating the dead horse. He was taken aback and gave her a look of deep hurt. She felt remorse but allowed that feeling to be overtaken by a surging wave of melancholy. It also didn’t help that Doug and Miriam had hit it off while having dinner at Kauser’s apartment with Miriam going gaga over a dish brought by Doug. Doug knew Ronny wasn’t coming back anytime soon, then, why, Kauser wondered, hadn’t he made a move? She believed she’d given enough hints. Unconsciously, she blamed her father for this snub. Doug, too, had quietly moved on.

She opened a bottle of wine, thinking, bizarrely, of previous lovers and sat down by the window after tuning the radio to a jazz station. A trumpet seemed to be searching, frantically, for the bluest note possible. But only succeeding in finding a red, blazing hot one. She was on her second glass. The music changed. Then on her third glass, she contemplated the sun lowering itself behind trees and rooftops and actually dropping dead, unleashing a snowstorm. She felt an obscure rage darting in and out of her body.

She wondered, worried, though absent-mindedly, if she was on her fifth or sixth glass when she saw the world around her beginning to spin. She knew better not to get up. Just sit there and follow the movements of the shadows she could vaguely discern, pale ghosts tiptoeing across the hardwood floor of the rooms, faces contorted while smiling and angry making a go at grabbing her attention to say something frivolous or important, cackling and some shouting, a few mocking her, one even sticking its tongue out at her. Sitting at the bottom of a sea of stupor a shadow emerged from one room and dissolved beyond the door frame. A click of the doorknob eventually beyond the water ripples pricked up her ears, only mildly, but her body sank back into the chair of its own volition, drained of the will to assert itself. She thought she heard, as she took another sip, her own voice utter the words Do not go . . . into the night! But the memory of her own sound dissolved slowly.

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Moazzam Sheikh is the author of The Idol Lover and Other Stories and Cafe Le Whore and Other Stories. He has translated across Urdu, Punjabi and English, notably the fiction of Naiyer Masud, Intizar Husain, Ikramullah and Nadir Ali. He is also noted for being the editor of A Letter From India: Contemporary Pakistani Short Stories (Penguin, India) and Chicago Quarterly Review’s special number on South Asian American Issue (2017). He is a librarian in San Francisco and lives with his wife and two sons.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Poetry

Prairie Poems

By Michael Lee Johnson

Courtesy: Michael Lee Johnson
Alberta Bound 


I own a gate to this prairie
that ends facing the Rocky Mountains.
They call it Alberta --
trails of endless blue sky
asylum of endless winters,
the hermitage of indolent retracted sun.
Deep freeze drips haphazardly into spring.
Drumheller, dinosaur badlands, dried bones,
ancient hoodoos sculpt high, prairie toadstools.
Alberta highway 2 opens the gateway of endless miles.
Travel weary, I stop by roadsides, ears open to whispering pines.
In harmony North to South
Gordon Lightfoot pitches out a tune-
"Alberta Bound."
With independence in my veins,
I am a long way from my home.


Tiny Sparrow Feet
 
It's calm.
Cheeky, unexpected.
Too quiet.
My clear plastic bowls
serves as my bird feeder.
I don't hear the distant
scratching, shuffling
of tiny sparrow feet,
the wing dances, fluttering, of a hungry
morning's lack of big band sounds.
I walk tentatively to my patio window,
spy the balcony with my detective's eyes.
I witness three newly hatched
toddler sparrows, curved nails, mounted
deep, in their mother's dead, decaying back.
Their childish beaks bent over elongated,
delicately, into golden chips, and dusted yellow corn.

Michael’s poetry sung to music

Michael Lee Johnson lived ten years in Canada during the Vietnam era and is a dual citizen of the United States and Canada. Today he is a poet, freelance writer, amateur photographer, and small business owner in Itasca, DuPage County, Illinois. Mr. Johnson is published in more than 2033 new publications. His poems have appeared in 42 countries; he edits and publishes ten poetry sites.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL